First Famous Dave’s a study of resilience

One of the coolest Native American stories about Wisconsin tourism has little to do with the luck of the dice and much to do with the will to succeed.

“When you set out to be the best, you want to give the best of yourself,” says Dave Anderson, but that hasn’t been easy.

He knows the meaning of failure, bankruptcy, intimidation and stage fright. So he studied hard, looked for mentors and eventually became one himself.

“I’d practice reading in front of a mirror for two hours a day, shake hands with myself, wink at myself, count and do the ABCs with a lit candle in front of me – learning how to not put it out.”

What happened?

Ten years ago, Dave opened a barbecue shack about nine miles out of Hayward, near a pretty and wooded part of Round Lake. Today he describes himself as one of the largest lake property owners in Sawyer County, with $12 million in lakefront investments.

Dave has become famous, as has his restaurant, Famous Dave’s. Today there are 100 in the country, plus three being built per month. The total includes the first site, which is a part of Grand Pines Resort, a getaway that is rustic in appearance and savvy in its marketing.

“At first I’d cater to Beer Belly Joe Fisherman,” Dave told the American Indian Alaska Native Tourism Association, which met recently in Green Bay. But as the type of customer changed, so did Dave’s place.

This month is Rocktoberfest, with live music on Saturday nights. There will be three Gourmet Getaway Weekends in November, $600 per couple for two nights in a lakefront cabin that has a fireplace and Jacuzzi, plus a one-day cooking class, a cocktail reception, dinner and Sunday brunch. (For more, go to or call 888/774-3023.)

“You stay in the background and don’t speak until you’re spoken to – that’s how I was brought up, and that’s got to change,” Dave declares. He acknowledges the challenges that Native Americans face but says it’s a cop out to simply give up.

“We have no one to blame but ourselves” he says, acknowledging the high suicide, alcoholism, drop-out and unemployment rates among Native Americans. “We have young people growing up without hope.”

Dave wants Native Americans “to have a passion about our rich, colorful history, and our traditions.” Success, he says, is about being the best and being involved.

“I have a dream to be the best of the best,” Dave says. It has motivated him to hand-select every one of the 3,000-plus blues tunes that are played inside of Famous Dave’s, as well as the recipes for barbecue sauces and desserts that have become award winners.

Which is correct: Native American or American Indian? Bobbi Webster, public relations director for the Oneida Nation, simply shrugs.

She is more concerned that non-Indians recognize the individuality – in native dress, language, history and rituals – that each tribe contains.

Bobbie predicts that tribal partnerships will increase during the next decade, as all have similar goal: responsible tourism development that is sensitive to Native American cultures and the environment.

“It will create a positive learning experience, but not be an exploitation,” she says. “We need to protect both our natural resources and our unique differences.”

Emerson Coy, planning and development director for the Lac du Flambeau, says a challenge is to be accurate about both heritage and contemporary life.

“They are a people of today,” he says of the tribe, but some tourists expect them to be living in teepees or ready to break out into a rain dance. Some also assume that Native Americans either live on welfare or are rich because of casino ownership.

Summer Tuesday powwows, plus cultural heritage centers, help dispel the myths and explain realities for the Lac du Flambeau.

The newly opened Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian in Washington D.C. also has elevated visibility and accuracy, notes Edward Hall, tourism coordinator for the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs. He says the Lewis and Clark bicentennial celebrations also showed how Native Americans are a major player in U.S. tourism growth.

“There are multiple levels of our history that are unique,” Hall says, “International visitors, in particular, are open to learning about them.”

Gloria Cobb of the Great Lakes Inter-tribal Council agrees. “We already go to trade shows in Europe twice a year,” she says. Tourism materials are printed in German and French; “Polish may be next.”

“There are over 500 federally recognized tribes, and each is different,” Gloria adds. “Kind of like Europe – all the countries are not the same.”

“If you’re only marketing to the white population, you’re making a mistake,” Karri Plowman, of the Minnesota American Indian Chamber of Commerce, told his colleagues during a conference workshop. He argues that Native Americans have “a global image – and we can bring people into Minnesota because of it.”

For more about Native American communities and heritage in Wisconsin, go to or call (715) 588-3324. There is information about cultural centers and events, as well as casinos.